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March 18, 2024

February 21, 2024

Understanding Postpartum Depression in Dads and Non-Birthing Partners

E:
213
with
Mark Williams
International Advocate for Perinatal Mental Health and Author

What You'll Learn

  • How to Recognize the Signs of Postpartum Depression in Dads or Partners
  • The Added Social Stigma for Dads with Postpartum Depression
  • The Impact of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Postpartum Depression
  • Why Paternal Mental Health Impacts the Entire Family
  • How We Can Offer Support for All New Parents

Please note that this post does contain light references to thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. Use your discretion when reading. 

The postpartum period is a vulnerable time for our mental health—and not just for the person who gives birth. Fathers or non-birthing partners and adoptive parents are all also at risk. And yet, postpartum depression in dads and partners is often overlooked and undersupported—even more so than for birthing moms. 

There is an additional stigma that men often carry after becoming dads, fueled by social pressure to bottle up their emotions, along with misconceptions about paternal postpartum depression. 

But mental health is important for the entire family—and it’s interwoven. When one parent struggles, everyone carries the weight. And if both parents develop postpartum depression, it can be difficult to navigate or in come cases even lead to a crisis. 

It’s important for all of us to be aware of the risk factors, signs, and symptoms related to postpartum depression—and it’s also vital to check in and provide supports for new parents regardless of gender. 

Today, I’m joined by perinatal mental health advocate Mark Williams, co-founder of International Father’s Mental Health Day, to discuss postpartum depression in dads and partners, and what we can do to support mental health for all new parents. 

How to Recognize the Signs of Postpartum Depression in Dads or Partners

Like many dads, Mark didn’t understand how becoming a father would impact his mental health. When his son was born via a traumatic emergency C-section, he began having panic attacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts, which he later learned related to PTSD from the experience. 

Mark’s wife developed severe postpartum depression—and after a suicide attempt, Mark devoted himself to staying home, supporting her, and caring for the baby. But what he didn’t realize is that his own mental health was struggling. The isolation and pressure took a toll on him, and he ended up experiencing his own suicidal thoughts, dealing with uncharacteristic anger, and turning to alcohol to cope. 

Mark was never diagnosed with postpartum depression and never received the help he needed. And years later, his mental health was still struggling. Eventually, he experienced a breakdown and started receiving support from the UK’s mental health services—and he began to look back and understand what had happened. 

After that, Mark became an advocate for father’s mental health, pushing for more systemic support for new parents. 

Mark said that it’s important for new dads to be on the lookout for signs of postpartum depression, including: 

  • Feelings of sadness and anxiety
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Anxiety, irritation, or anger
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Poor concentration
  • Feelings of worthlessness, guilt and hopelessness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death and suicide
  • Lack of pleasure in things that were formerly enjoyable
  • Feeling disconnected or a lack of bonding with the baby

But knowing the signs and symptoms is only half of the battle—we also have to break the stigma and overcome the misconceptions and barriers that keep dads from seeking support. 

The Added Social Stigma for Dads with Postpartum Depression

Mark often found himself struggling in silence. He’d experienced trauma during his son’s birth, but he felt like his wife was the one who needed support. So he internalized his struggles. 

This is often the experience that I hear from partners—they feel as if they shouldn’t be the ones struggling because the mom has gone through so much, and they are reluctant to add to the stress or challenges of the postpartum period. 

Fathers will open up, but only when they feel that they are in a safe space.

With dads in particular, there is also a social expectation to not talk about their feelings or express their emotions. Mark said that in his experience fathers will open up, but only when they feel that they are in a safe space. That’s why it’s so important to build systemic check-ins and encourage dads and partners to have these conversations. 

Mark also pointed out that when dads shut down or don’t communicate, they might think they are helping their partners by not burdening them—but in reality, the lack of communication adds more stress, uncertainty, and worry to the situation. 

For example, it’s not uncommon for dads experiencing postpartum depression to avoid sex. This can stem from fear of pregnancy or repeating the trauma experience. But without communication, their partner’s might perceive this as rejection or lack of attraction. 

Maintaining open communication, expressing our feelings and emotions, and talking about what we’re going through together can help all partners feel seen, heard, and less alone. 

The Impact of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Postpartum Depression

The ways that postpartum depression presents in dads, moms, birthing partners, or non-birthing partners, are the same. The signs and symptoms aren’t gendered. But often the coping mechanisms we use are impacted by gender norms and social conditioning. 

It is more common for men with depression to turn to substance abuse in an attempt to numb their feelings. This might be due to stigma around men being perceived as “weak” for talking about or expressing emotions. That pressure to mask emotions or bottle up feelings can lead to intense isolation and unhealthy coping. 

But these coping mechanisms have real, lasting effects not just on paternal mental health, but on the entire family. 

Recent research has found that in homes where a dad experienced postpartum depression, children are twice as likely to experience three or more adverse childhood experiences (such as substance abuse, violence, suicide attempts).

The way our mental health impacts how we interact with our partners also likely plays a role in the bottling up of emotions. Partners might feel disconnected or unsure of how to bond with the baby, especially if mom is breastfeeding. If they receive criticism or experience gatekeeping that leaves them uncertain about their role, it can feel even more isolating. 

But it’s vital that partners be given the opportunity to bond and interact with the baby. Non-birthing parents experience brain rewiring similar to birthing parents—but they need contact and interaction to bring those changes online and build confidence. The early days of a child’s life are an important time to build bonds and attachment. 

The more we support dads and partners, the better our children fare.

Mark pointed out that when fathers are depressed, they are less likely to sing, dance, and play with a child. They are also less likely to follow health guidelines and recommendations. The more we support dads and partners, the better our children fare.

Why Paternal Mental Health Impacts the Entire Family

Despite all the evidence about the importance of paternal mental health, dads aren’t being properly screened and assessed for postpartum period. Mark said that in the UK all moms get screened (which isn’t the case in the US or Canada), but 85% of dads surveyed said they were never once asked about their mental health. 

In countries where maternal mental health support is still lacking even for moms, it’s sometimes difficult to have large-scale conversations about mental health for dads. Sometimes we might feel as if it’s taking the focus away from moms.

Support isn’t a zero-sum game. It doesn’t take away from moms to advocate for partners.

But support isn’t a zero-sum game. It doesn’t take away from moms to advocate for partners. Research suggests that if one parent develops postpartum depression, their partner is 50% more likely to develop it as well. The family unit benefits when everyone receives the mental health support they need. 

Additionally, all partners are at higher risk for developing PPD in subsequent perinatal periods after experiencing it once. If we miss the chance to treat partners, we are prolonging the struggle and heightening the long-term risk. 

Mark pointed out that this risk can be severe—research shows that in the UK suicide is the biggest killer for men, and it is up to 47 times more likely to occur during the postpartum period. Prioritizing mental health in the perinatal period can save lives. 

How We Can Offer Support for All New Parents

One way we can help new parents is to increase awareness and education about risk factors for postpartum depression. These factors include relationship conflict, financial problems, stressful or unplanned pregnancies, traumatic birth experiences, and a personal or family history of mental health concerns such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or ADHD

In some cases, those underlying mental health concerns might not have been identified or diagnosed previously. Mark shared that he was later diagnosed with ADHD, and that he believes many of his struggles in the postpartum period were exacerbated by that. 

That’s why widespread mental health awareness for everyone also helps support new parents. When we are able to identify risk factors and head into parenthood with our eyes open for signs and symptoms, it becomes easier to recognize postpartum depression and seek treatment early on. 

Another factor that is likely contributing to postpartum depression in dads and partners is a lack of parental leave. When parents don’t have the chance for bonding with their baby, it can leave them struggling with the adjustment. Partners who do have access to leave are more likely to take an active role in the household labor and feel more confident as parents, even for years to come. 

Mark said it’s also important to normalize the struggle. The adjustment to becoming a parent can be hard—it doesn’t always match our expectations. But if we can talk about the struggle and give everyone safety to express their feelings, we can let parents know they aren’t alone. 

When both parents are struggling with postpartum depression, it can be very difficult. Mark said that family support is what got him and his wife through that time. Not everyone has family support—but it’s important to reach out and ask for help from whoever makes up your village or community support system. 

We can all help by checking in on all new parents, asking how they are doing and letting them know that it’s okay to ask for help or be vulnerable. 

Momwell doesn’t just support moms—we offer virtual therapy support for all new parents. If you are struggling with postpartum depression or the adjustment to parenthood, book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today.

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Tags:

Paternal mental health, Partners, PTSD

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Mark Williams
International Advocate for Perinatal Mental Health and Author

Mark is an International Advocate for Perinatal Mental Health for all parents, an author, and a keynote speaker for Paternal and Maternal Mental Health. Mark has worked very closely with many organizations, and the Mental Health Alliance, and has been integrally involved with many campaigns, such as advocating for the reopening of a mother and baby unit in Wales, How are you, Dad? and pioneering the set up of International Father’s Mental Health Day. Mark has spoken on television and radio stations around the world raising awareness that supporting all new parents has far better outcomes for the whole family and the developing baby while lowering the high risk of suicide in men. The high risk of suicide among new fathers, who struggle with perinatal mental health issues, with a lack of understanding in postnatal depression and PTSD in fathers, adds to the stigma.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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